Remembering Tim Keller – today's C.S. Lewis

Preacher, visionary, church planter, repenter

Timothy James Keller, 23 September 1950 – 19 May 2023

It is often said that Dr Timothy Keller, who died last Friday at his home in Manhattan, was this generation’s C.S. Lewis. The dust jacket for The Reason for God says so.

Tim would have had none of it. He just wasn’t that kind of person. I remember sitting down with him after yet another remarkable talk that he had delivered, sparkling with ideas and insight, with lots more to explore, and all he wanted to talk about was his kids and how great they were. Tim was a simple child of God with, like all of us, the normal joys and worries in life.

And yet … that impact! It was enormous. Although it might be an overstatement to ascribe C.S. Lewis status to his contribution, it would only be a slight overstatement.

Fuel your faith every Friday with our weekly newsletter

He preached to my heart about preaching to the heart.

It is rare enough for someone to break new ground in one area of Christian thought or practice. To do that typically takes a special combination of uncommon insight and understanding, together with fruitful ministry practice and leadership.

But Tim Keller broke new gospel ground in multiple areas, across many years, and in ways that still sound astonishingly fresh and powerful today.

Preaching

After his death, I heard someone on the other side of the world from New York City comment that they were listening to a Keller sermon from 1989, and it sounded like it could have been preached yesterday in his city. Such was its biblical depth, theological clarity and spiritual power. Another told me that she was in the Zimbabwean bush for several years, and the thing that not only sustained but inspired her throughout that time was … yep, Tim Keller’s sermons.

Keller’s preaching is perhaps the thing for which he is best known and most appreciated. This was my first substantive contact with him – the Doctor of Ministry course that he taught with Ed Clowney, “Preaching Christ in a postmodern age”.  I remember weaving across lanes on the Anzac Bridge in Sydney while listening to the audio files because my eyes were tear-filled at the beauty and power of his presentation of how to preach. He preached to my heart about preaching to the heart.

He saw all of life as the arena for the glory of God.

In that series, Keller invites preachers under the hood of his own preaching. He explains that in bringing the word of God to the congregation, he seeks to bring to bear on people’s hearts the power of grace, not only for justification but also for sanctification; for it is only the grace of God in the cross of Christ that has the spiritual power to melt our hearts and reorder our loves. As Canadian-American philosopher James KA Smith puts it, “You are what you love.”

In this, Keller was modelling his famed third-way-ism. This was not some insipid halfway point between two extremes but a genuinely gospel-centred transcending of two inadequate and polarised alternatives – in this case, nominalism on the one hand (justification without sanctification) and on the other hand, moralism (sanctification without justification). It is this key insight into how preaching is to achieve its aims, and his thousands of efforts at putting it into practice (now freely available at gospelinlife.com), that has been so powerful in the lives of so many. I cannot tell you the number of people who comment to me that they have been listening to a ‘Keller sermon’ and then shake their heads at the spiritual impact it had on them.

Vision

The second area of contribution was his vision of the Christian life as fully integrated – he saw all of life as the arena for the glory of God. One side of this coin was work: his book Every Good Endeavour provided significant theological resources for people to see their work as enriching culture and, in so doing, serving the purposes of God in creation.

The other side of this coin was his emphasis on justice, encapsulated in his book Generous Justice, which included in discipleship to Christ the call to serve those who were the victims of the culture. Here Keller actually had two emphases: namely, Christians are to include their public life, not just their private lives, in their service of the Lord.

Church planting in a post-Christian era

The third area of contribution was to make contextualisation the business of church planters and pastors, not just missionaries. Of course, in the West as much as anywhere else, church planters and pastors are missionaries – theologian Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998) had made that clear. But Keller decisively advanced the contextualisation conversation in at least two ways. He articulated, biblically defended and modelled the ‘how’ of contextualisation: enter the culture’s stories, affirm what can be affirmed as part of God’s common grace, critique what needs to be challenged and show how Jesus is the fulfilment of that narrative (the hero of the story).

Keller also brought new theological clarity and rigour to the question of Christ and culture, sharpening Reinhold Niebuhr’s categories of how Christians engage with culture. He showed how they each relate to one aspect of the gospel but on their own, fail to do justice to the whole gospel.

His leadership was the opposite of command and control – he was relentlessly high in trust.

Keller brought to the fore what he called ‘catholicity of Spirit’. How often does one denomination help start a church of another denomination? Rare as hen’s teeth! But under Keller’s leadership, Redeemer Presbyterian Church helped fund an Anglican church plant in New York City because he recognised that the city needed more than one type of church. Keller’s interest was reaching the city for Christ, not simply building a bigger and bigger church. Keller was well known as an irenic (reconciliatory) leader. In part, that was personality; but that was by far the smaller part. Mostly, it was a gospel-driven conviction that if the Father calls someone a daughter or son, we have to love and serve and welcome them as sisters and brothers, no matter how different they might be from us.

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘mega-church pastor’? Mostly not positive! And yet that is precisely what Tim Keller was. And not just the leader of a mega-church – Keller founded an organisation that is now global in reach, seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of churches planted and strengthened around the world. His leadership was the opposite of command and control – he was relentlessly high in trust.

Tim Keller was the real deal, all the way down. He never stopped being a repenter. He not only knew and trusted grace, but he lived it out towards others. The grace of God in the cross of Christ was his joy in life and hope in death, as the yardstick of all relationships and the measure of all leadership. And that is perhaps as great a legacy as any. His biographer Collin Hansen said it well: “He never gave up on the vision of the bowed head.”

We thank God for Tim Keller.

Rev. Dr Andrew Katay is CEO of City to City Australia and Rector of Christ Church Inner West.